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The many translations of Day of the Dead

Leila Day

If you walk down Mission Street this weekend you’ll see family members holding pictures of loved ones in one hand and candles in another. You may see ofrendas--small altars set up to pay tribute to people who have passed away. It’s a tradition that’s been present in the Mission for years, but how it’s celebrated depends on who you ask.

Here’s what a few people had to say:

Corey Lambert: To be completely honest the only thing I know about Dia de los Muertos is that we would celebrate it every year. They would hide a skeleton in a cake.

Jana Barber: I know it’s been going on in different countries and i hear people go to graveyards and sit and give honoring to the spirits.

Chuck Dibben: I love make up and drag queens and stuff

Laura Bitar: I’m not the right person to talk to.

Connie Rivera: I love it, I love to see,  when families come out. A lot of people know what we are celebrating and a lot don’t, but that’s ok.

You can meet Rivera yourself, on the corner of 24th and Bryant Street. She and her family run  a local store called Mixcoatl Arts & Crafts that sells everything from Mexican wrestling masks to small painted sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead. Rivera has lived in the mission for 25 years and she’s seen the celebration of the holiday change over that time.

“It’s  nice when you see people with candles and flowers but not nice with costumes and partying,” she says. Rivera thinks this shift away from the holiday’s roots may have something to do with Day of the Dead falling so close to Halloween. But others think that it’s symbolic of how the mission itself is changing.  

Earlier this month nearly 200 people gathered at the Brava Theater on 24th Street and York Street to protest the evictions of businesses and long-term residents. A young speaker from the Mission Anti-Eviction march took the microphone, shouting “Right now this city is changing into a place where families aren’t welcome, elders aren’t welcome, artists aren’t welcome! It makes me sick!”

The march goes on

The anti-eviction march is part of an ongoing campaign to show residents how the people who are being priced out are the very ones who make the neighborhood an attractive place to live.

Marching through the neighborhood people chant “What do we want? Rent Freeze!” The chanting ends at the Mission Cultural Center where the Day of the Dead procession will be different from years past.  

“This year we are taking Day of the Dead back,”  says Martina Ayala who works at the center. “Some of the processions have turned into burning man and carnaval and that’s not what day of the dead is about,” she says.

Ayala says this year the exhibit at the Mission Cultural Center will mourn the death of the old Mission. “We we are creating a procession that honors our traditions, and allows us to feel we can bring our families. Many families don’t bring families because there are too many people that drinking and activities that have nothing to do with Day of the Dead. And it’s unsafe,” says Ayala.

Inside the center, Ayala walks me through the altars. In one corner there are two photos with candles. One is the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe -Mexico’s patron saint—and the candle next to it has the virgin’s body but her face is replaced with that of Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg. Ayala points out others. These altars fall in line with the socially-conscious exhibits of years past, but this year it’s more personal.

An artists' Mission

Rene Yañez is one of the faces of this year’s Day of the Dead and of the Mission’s art scene as a whole. “I feel there is this cultural eviction going on, creating this cultural tourism where they are just going to leave enough people to create a semblance of the Mission and I think people should resist that,” he says.

When he says cultural eviction, he’s talking about himself. After 35 years of living and making art in the mission he was recently evicted under the Ellis act. That’s a state law that allows landlords to take back their units.

“I’d like to stay in the Mission but I went and looked at a place a few days ago and I can’t afford a place that’s $3,000 and smaller than mine,” says Yañez.

Yañez is precisely the kind of person who residents like Martina Ayala of the Mission Cultural Center are trying to keep in the neighborhood. Yañez founded the Galería de la Raza in the Mission back in 1970, and he’s curated exhibits and protests around everything from denouncing apartheid to labor movements.

They even call him El Padrino or "the godfather." For years, he has overseen the curation of the Day of the Dead exhibit at the South of Market Arts Center. This year his focus is a little different. Yañez and his partner both have cancer and he’s lost friends from the disease.

“I’m also emphasizing cancer as a theme to the audience so we can communicate to the audience and in a realm of Day of the Dead we are offering it in different ways,” he tells me, pointing to altars of loved ones lost to the disease.

Much in the way he is fighting his illness, he has decided to fight his eviction, because he has seen the consequences firsthand in other parts of the city.

“I saw what happened in the Fillmore—there was a place called Minnies Can-Do--music and jazz and cultural expressions of the neighborhood. And they took the soul out and now they put other jazz there but it’s not for the people that live there but for the tourists. It’s awful, but we should examine what developers and people are doing. It’s not just artists, but teachers and nurses and other people who can’t afford to be here and they are being pushed out,” says Yañez.

Yañez and his family have until July to find a new home. So this weekend, he says, he’ll continue to celebrate Dia de los Muertos as he’s always done, by going to art exhibits. And if you want to celebrate by partying, Yañez says, good for you. He’s not going to judge.

“I try not to be judgmental because in the beginning, celebrating Day of the Dead, people said we were a death cult. I try not to be in a situation where I judge others. I guess when it comes to death people have to look at terms. In Day of the Dead it’s not just mourning, and I do promote people celebrating life,” says Yañez.

In a way, that duality is built into Dia de los Muertos, and maybe it will become part of what it means to live in the Mission as well.  

For Day of the Dead events click here:


Day of the Dead SF

Mission Cultural Center

Assistant producer on this story was Rachel Wong. Martina Castro was the Senior Producer.

To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above.


Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.